April 4, 2013
Adrienne Lo and Abraham Conlon, the proprietors of the hugely popular new Chinese-Portuguese restaurant Fat Rice in Logan Square, are interesting looking, the kind of couple you see around town and wonder what their deal is.
I've seen them around for years, at the underground X-Marx dinners they've hosted, at weekend markets where Lo sells her mother's excellent peanut brittle. They are rarely apart; you almost never see one without the other. Lo, 29, is as chill and Lincoln Park-composed (she was born and raised there) as Conlon, 31, is kinetic and Lowell, Mass.-brash (he was born and raised there, aka the lower-middle-class neighborhoods of "The Fighter"). She's first-generation Chinese, and he's Portuguese-Irish.
Both are lanky, dark and more hippie than hipster. Conlon, with his thick eyeglasses, ponytail and Adam's apple, suggests Jeff Goldblum by way of "Girls"; Lo, pleasant though she looks angry, is reminiscent of Aubrey Plaza, the actress who plays the abrasive April Ludgate on "Parks and Recreation." They look like they should be running a macrobiotic diner in Madison, Wis.
A sample of Lo's story: "So after I graduated Trinity (College, in Connecticut) I had to get a job but I didn't want to get a job, so I basically moved to Italy and became a migrant worker and picked vegetables on a farm for eight months."
Now a sample of Conlon's: "So everyone in D.C. I knew from (the Culinary Institute of America) left the restaurant (where he was working), so I was like, I'm out too! I was like, '(expletive) this! This (expletive) sucks! I'm going to work in a haunted house!' Which is what I did after everyone quit. I had this executioner's mask and I was set up, so it seemed like I was moving around but really I was in one place and people are like, 'He's (expletive) following us!' The goal, frankly, our boss told us, was to make them (expletive) their pants. Which, as terrible as it may sound, is still my motivation. We don't want you to (expletive) yourself at Fat Rice, but we want you excited."
To say it plainly: Lo and Conlon, host/cook and chef/host, are the best non sequiturs in Chicago dining, the nicest possible reminders — from their unpretentious, untrendy cooking to their left-field back stories — of how stale, repetitive and overly familiar even the most accomplished big-city restaurant scene can become.
They are not the latest new-new thing — they are an actual new thing.
Said Mindy Segal, pastry chef and owner of Mindy's Hot Chocolate in Bucktown (who nominated Conlon in 2011 to Time Out Chicago's "20 Chefs to Watch" list): "They are two of the most genuine people in Chicago food now, because they are taking their own path, and it's coming from within them, their own experiences, not from the influence of other chefs or trends or whatever — how can you not support that? I am so sick of overstyled big-box restaurants with 250 seats, and (Lo and Conlon) serve incredible Macanese food — Macanese! — to a lot fewer with a personal touch. I don't really know them well, but I love them. They're like a ray of light."
The other day I sat in Fat Rice for a while, waiting for them to arrive. It was early morning, and they were out shopping Chinatown for ingredients and running very late. Which left me plenty of time to wonder: What kind of couple decides, as Lo said, they were "all about the preservation of Macanese food"? (And what exactly is Macanese food?) When was the last time you've heard of a hot restaurant team at a hot Chicago restaurant who arrived on the scene with no experience in a Chicago restaurant — with no serious restaurant pedigree anywhere, at all? When was the last time, as I noticed with Conlon, a restaurant owner didn't once refer to his new restaurant as a "concept"? (Lo herself told me, not out of pride: "I've never been to Alinea. I've never been anywhere nice in Chicago.") And how is it a restaurant less than 6 months old already feels this lived-in?
Said Francis Sadac, a Chicago human resources executive and former X-Marx devotee: "When I heard they were opening a restaurant, I have to be honest, I cringed. I worried they would be like every other restaurant here, that they wouldn't be special now. But whenever I go (to Fat Rice) I see people I met at X-Marx. Which is interesting: Instead of building a community from scratch, they kind of brought a community with them."
Lo and Conlon arrived 40 minutes late. "Sorry," Lo said, shouldering a box of greens onto the counter. "Super late." I didn't mind. The room had grown stuffy and now, with the door open, there was fresh air.
You would probably never get this by looking at it, but the dark, earthy interior of Fat Rice, at Sacramento and Diversey, is modeled after a hut in Antarctica. Lo and Conlon saw an old picture of a shack in Antarctica, admired its rustic coziness and set out to buy reclaimed wood that would make Fat Rice reminiscent of that image. Also, the older Asian couple on the bathroom doors, playfully posing for a photographer, superimposed with stray images from Chinese medical texts? Lo's grandparents. In fact, even if you could slip into the restaurant's open kitchen and look over Conlon's shoulder, you likely wouldn't know what you were looking at: The rough sketch description of Fat Rice may be Portuguese (meaning, somewhat, lemons, clams, rich smoky sausages) meets traditional Chinese, but the menu, Conlon said, is intended as a tribute to Macau, a former Portuguese colony on the South China Sea now administrated by the Chinese (along with Hong Kong), with Indian, African and Malaysian influences.
On a recent weeknight, as the wait for a table grew to 45 minutes, he explained this. He stood splay-legged at his counter, pointing out the dozens of ingredients in prep dishes before him: ginger carrots, curried cabbage, Spanish chorizo, dried scallops, pickled Thai eggplant. The restaurant's "salada gordo" alone is a garden of pickled aji pepper, hard-boiled tea-smoked eggs and curried chicken croutons. A plate of sliced linguica flew past, followed by a dish of spreadable, fishy salt cod, spotted with mint leaves.
"Never see that in Chicago!" Conlon said. No, I said, rarely. Bacalhau (salt cod) and linguica are Portuguese staples; I grew up on the East Coast with Portuguese food, and Conlon's is some of the best I've had.
Then a plate of pot stickers left the kitchen and every head at the bar swiveled. They look unlike any other pot stickers — individual dumplings held beneath a crepe canopy that's been flipped upside down. To reach the dumplings, you break through the latticework of fried milk and water. The unusual appearance, Lo said, comes from watching her grandmother's caretaker make dumplings. Her family, though, she added, makes dumplings habitually. Conlon told me: "To feel accepted by Adrienne's family, I had to learn dumplings."
Conlon and Lo met while working at Whole Foods. Lo, whose parents are herbalists and acupuncturists, studied Buddhism at Trinity. She learned to cook for herself during college, talked her way into a job at a good Italian restaurant in West Hartford, Conn., then spent months in mountainous villages in India, meditating and cooking. Conlon, a latchkey kid who watched PBS food shows in the afternoons, went to vocational high school ("to cook in prisons"), worked the line in restaurants around New England, attended the CIA, then, one day, read about Alinea in Gourmet: "I decided I would sit on their back stairs with my knives until they hired me."
He arrived in Chicago just as the restaurant went on vacation. So Conlon went to Whole Foods on North Halsted Street, where an old friend offered him a cooking-class job.
"But it wasn't easy to get people," he said, "so I would be like 'Creepy Man,' walking up to strangers shopping and asking, 'So, what are you doing tonight? I will cook you five courses, and teach you to cook, for only $10!'" Lo worked during the day, Conlon at night. On Christmas Eve in 2007, intrigued by posters around Whole Foods for his classes, she attended a 12-course Christmas dinner he hosted in his Wrigleyville apartment. A few months later, they created the X-Marx underground dinner club, using Whole Foods' mailing lists to build a following.
Said Heather Sperling, editor of Tasting Table and an early supporter: "I was seriously impressed. They were turning out tightly edited, smartly executed dishes in this setting" — Lo and Conlon's apartment — "where they could have done anything, really. They could have been indulgent and messy, instead they were so disciplined."
Within a couple of years, their X-Marx mailing list was 5,500 names long. On the other hand, after a few years of making multicourse meals several times a week, largely on their own, X-Marx became wearing.
Then two years ago during a trip to China with Lo's parents, they became fixated on Macau, noticing that "even in Macau, Macanese food was spare and dying," Lo said. Her mother, Alison Lo, told me: "I think, because of Abe's Portuguese ancestry and our ancestry, something really clicked in them during that trip."
In November, to little fanfare, they opened Fat Rice. Craig Perman, the Chicago wine expert who assembled their drink list, said, "There was no hype machine because there were no publicists — nobody does that. But things are so contrived (in Chicago) now, it's appreciated."
Indeed, the fanciest thing about Fat Rice is its namesake, a heaping paella in a cast-iron pot, stuffed with Portuguese chicken, Chinese sausage, prawns, pork, duck, littleneck clams. It's homey, all-inclusive, a statement of purpose without being much of a statement.
Anyway, that's their deal.
"If you don't have a pedigree," Conlon said, "then you cobble one together — you make your own."
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